Hoop Dreams

Throughout the nineteenth century native peoples confronted the establishment of a hegemonic alien culture on their ancestral homelands and, in a paroxysm of grief, they called forth a stream of visions, phophecies, apocalyptic forecasts and dreams that coalesced into a spiritual revival known as the Ghost Dance. For cultures that understood time as a recursive, seasonal phenomenon, prophecies took the shape of changing worlds; for native Americans the nineteenth century was truly the winter of their discontent and prophecies inevitably involved the coming of spring, the disappearance of Euro-Americans and the return of all the living things which the newcomers had destroyed. This was not a cultural renaissance (Edge Times) but instead a loose aggregation of stress symptoms masquerading as a spiritual awakening. It spoke of desperation, disintegration and disenchantment. It elicited a reaction of fear and hysteria from the European settlers ending famously in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

This was a movement that thrived best in relocation camps - the Indian Reservations - and had a significant Western incarnation, notably amongst the Northern Shoshone and Paiute. In South Dakota it is said that the Lakota people gave all their waking hours to the Ghost Dance and there was an attempt by a government agent to introduce baseball as a competing attraction. The Ghost Dance, based on the familiar round or circle dance, accompanied by wild exhortations and prophesying and interspersed with lengthy periods of trance, won out. Both rituals have become central to the building of their respective national identity.

Late in the nineteenth century the Chumash were a barely surviving relict population scattered to the four winds. They took no part in this last flowering of pan-American native revolutionary spirituality. Their cycle of time had ended in deepest winter.

It was through the Ghost Dance that many tribes forged new social identities that would become critical in their survival as a people. It was one of the key experiences that fostered an Indian identity relevant to the native peoples' coexistence with what was essentially a colonizing power. As Gregory E. Smoak writes in Ghost Dances and Identity, U.C. Press, 2008, "in the late eighteenth century, European colonists along the eastern seaboard of North America, invented a nation and began to invent a national identity". In the nineteenth century, Native Americans began to respond by "developing an Indian identity both as a way of incorporating the newcomers and positioning themselves in the new order".

As I have pointed out previously, such identities are not immutable, they are often shaped by circumstance (Things fall Apart). Pre-contact, native peoples did not possess a shared identity, the essential foundation for social organization was the village or kinship ties; for the Chumash, this foundation was destroyed by the missionization pogrom, and never re-made. For other native peoples, the Ghost Dance was a means for re-establishing identity in a radically changed world while continuing to access their cultural practices and religious beliefs (Smoak).

The Chumash as an ethnically cohesive band, no longer exist. Their blood lines and their kinship ties have been dissipated over the last one hundred and seventy years and only crudely patched together since 1988 to take advantage of the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). Yet the idea of the Chumash lives on (not least in this blog) and not just as a source of spiritual plunder for new agers eager to appropriate native American spiritual beliefs and warp them to their own ends (Peace Walk). They are the poster-tribe of Southern California.

So when Barbara Kingsolver reviews T.C. Boyle's 'rollicking' new novel, When the Killing's Done, Viking, 2011 which describes a battle between the originalist National Park Service, attempting to restore the Channel Islands to a pristine, pre-contact state and an animal lover rushing to the aid of the sheep, goats and rats that are being removed as invasive species, they are her (and perhaps his) go-to tribe in describing the islands' fishing camps as "dating back to the Chumash"; as if they define the ne plus ultra of ancient habitation.

The Chumash are a fixture of our imaginative conception of the pre-contact, edenic Southern California. But as I indicated in Bobcat Magic, they are far from the 'First People' of California. In a moment of ethnogenetic alchemy the Euro-Asians that followed the kelp road and landed on Santa Rosa became the first Californians thirteen thousand years ago. Absent a living tradition that links back to this point of origination, however tenuously, we are left with a scant archaeological record and the syncretized mythologies of a missing tribe.

The Chumash origin myth concerns Hutash, the earth goddess who populated Santa Cruz island with people conjured from magic seeds. Later, her husband the Sky Snake sent lightning bolts down to the island and thus gave them fire. They prospered to such an extent that the island became crowded and the noise of their gatherings began to annoy Hutash. To alleviate the overcrowding, she created a rainbow bridge across which they could journey to the un-populated mainland. The bridge, high above the ocean gave many of the travelers vertigo and they fell into the sea. Hutash was concerned that she had caused them to drown so she turned them into dolphins, creating a kinship between the marine mammals and the Chumash people.

Rainbows and dolphins are staples of the New Age sensibility and it is hard to imagine that these prototypical feel-good symbols would have survived unchanged in the crucible of revolutionary spirituality that informed the Ghost Dancers - invincible in their white ghost shirts and convinced that change was a comin'.

The great white ghost-bird of Chumash legend that wheeled in the sky and swooped low to investigate a cooking-fire and, charred by the flames, became the coal-black condor might have emerged as a symbol of survival against all odds. Perhaps in that still center of the circle of time, in the middle of the hoop, a prophesy linking their survival to that of Gymnogyps californianus might have galvanized the Chumash people; and perhaps the condor's unlikely survival should give us pause in writing a final epitaph to this lost tribe.